Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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Unlike the narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s poem “Safe in Shade,” who takes from an apparently identical communion with his grandfather a memory of safety and of “Truth—oh, unambiguous,” the narrator of “When the Light Gets Green” carries with him a sense of disillusionment and, perhaps unconsciously, offers the reader a powerful argument against the ability of humanity to control its present environment, past, or future.

The remainders of humankind’s mortality and of the limits of authority in the early parts of the story suggest how powerless humanity is to control or to keep its present, but the scene under the cedar tree and what follows it focuses this theme and adds the past and future to the story’s purview. Mr. Barden’s obsession with history has a double significance. On one hand, his subjects are all illustrative of battles won or lost: Flodden Field, where James IV of Scotland was slain on the field, the sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated Russian campaign. On the other hand, Mr. Barden attempts to rewrite his own history and that of the South with hypotheses modeled on his readings, asserting, for example, that “if they had done what Forrest wanted and cleaned the country ahead of the Yankees, like the Russians beat Napoleon, they’d whipped the Yankees sure.”

Unlike history, Mr. Barden “never read poetry, he just said what he already knew,” and what he already knows emphasizes the ironies of man’s pride and his failure to control. The narrator remembers and quotes snippets from two poems by George Gordon, Lord Byron, but he does not finish the stanzas he recalls. The first is from Don Juan (1819-1824), Canto III, stanza 86, and though it begins in a celebratory vein, its last lines strike a different note: “Eternal summer gilds them yet,/ But all, except their sun, is set.” More disturbing still is the second bit of poetry, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), Canto IV, stanza 179. The narrator quotes only the stirring first line, “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll,” but Byron’s stanza continues:

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;Man marks the earth with ruin—his controlStops with the shore;—upon the watery plainThe wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remainA shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.

As Warren’s story moves on from the cedar tree to 1914 and then to 1918—another war, another human failure to control—through love affirmed but nonexistent to Mr. Barden’s death, the reader is reminded again of Warren’s poem “Safe in Shade” and its finally grim view:

That all-devouring, funnel-shaped, mad and high-spiraling,Dark suction thatWe have, as the Future, named.